Why does California’s power grid keep flirting with disaster? We’ve got answers

Cars drive past transmission lines. <span class=(David Butow / For The Times)” data-src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/hLo.s.w5l47PJ_ZnqJfjDA–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTcwNTtoPTQ3MA–/https://s.yimg.com/uu/api/res/1.2/2SWx0XGab6l5b64fS7HmsA–~B/aD01NjA7dz04NDA7c209MTthcHBpZD15dGFjaHlvbg–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/la_times_articles_853/19304be9285c1d8982d565dad835e5a8″ data-src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/hLo.s.w5l47PJ_ZnqJfjDA–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTcwNTtoPTQ3MA–/https://s.yimg.com/uu/api/res/1.2/2SWx0XGab6l5b64fS7HmsA–~B/aD01NjA7dz04NDA7c209MTthcHBpZD15dGFjaHlvbg–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/la_times_articles_853/19304be9285c1d8982d565dad835e5a8″/
Cars drive past transmission lines. (David Butow / For The Times)

California was forced to take desperate measures over Labor Day weekend to keep the lights on.

Less than a month after the state experienced its first rolling blackouts in nearly two decades, officials again urged residents to use less electricity during the late afternoon and into the evening as extreme heat, fueled by the climate crisis, baked the West.

California needed all the conservation it could get as out-of-control fires, also worsened by global warming, rendered some power plants useless. Flames knocked out transmission lines and generators from the Sierra Nevada to the San Diego backcountry.

Just like last month, Californians responded in force, using far less energy than predicted. Electric utilities turned to their Western neighbors for extra power supply. The Trump administration granted an emergency request from state officials to allow three Los Angeles-area gas plants to produce more electricity than federal pollution permits would normally allow.

And so most of California narrowly avoided shortage-induced rolling blackouts, even as heat-related equipment failures knocked out electricity to 115,00 homes and businesses in Los Angeles, and as Pacific Gas & Electric shut off power to 172,000 customers to reduce the risk of its electrical infrastructure igniting more fires.

State officials are still studying the exact causes of the energy shortages. But they’ve already outlined a few big-picture problems. Some gas-fired power plants have retired, doomed by poor economics and state policies. And California has failed to replace those generators with clean-energy alternatives that can help keep the lights on after sundown, when solar farms go offline.

The state has also become increasingly reliant on energy imports, which are getting scarcer as other Western states join California in looking beyond fossil fuels. And imports can dry up during heat storms that affect the entire West.

For more answers about why California’s power grid keeps flirting with disaster — and what can be done about it — The Times spoke with Stephen Berberich. Since 2011, Berberich has served as president of the California Independent System Operator, the nonprofit corporation that manages most of the state’s power grid. He made news last month when he blamed the state’s Public Utilities Commission for recent power shortfalls, saying the commission had failed to line up adequate supplies.

The following conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. It was conducted after last month’s rolling blackouts, before this weekend’s heat wave that nearly forced the grid operator to order another round of rotating outages.

Lots of people are trying to blame the rolling blackouts on particular energy sources. Some have said it’s solar power’s fault for not being available at night. Others have talked about wind energy variability. You’ve had people noting that certain gas plants went offline or weren’t available. Does it make sense to blame these power shortages on any one resource?

I think that’s the wrong way to look at it. I’ve looked at all the data. The big picture is that we’re operating too close to the margin and don’t have any room for error.

We are susceptible in exactly the conditions we saw on Friday and Saturday night [Aug. 14 and 15] where you have high net loads — those are the loads at 7 p.m. after the sun has gone down. We knew coming into the day on Friday that we were going to be tight, but that’s not unusual. We’re often tight. And imports generally take care of the gap. In this case, because it was hot in the West, we weren’t able to get the imports we would normally get. Renewables are not at the heart of the issues we had on Friday night.

On Saturday, there was some movement of wind around the time of the net peak. Wind did move 1,000 megawatts up and down and back up, but that shouldn’t be a problem if you weren’t so close to the margin.

The gas fleet performed pretty well, in my estimation, and everything else performed pretty well. This was a matter of running out of capacity to serve load.

Rows of solar panels stand on desert farmland in the Imperial Valley west of El Centro, Calif. <span class=(Don…

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